Los Farallones

Dispatches from Point Blue’s field station on the Farallon Islands National Wildlife Refuge

It's October….Where Are The Birds??

It has been about two weeks since our last update from the Farallones, and although a few birds have come and gone, we are still awaiting (hotly anticipating) a Fall fallout. Strong Northwesterly winds and dense fog have conspired to keep birds away from our Island, but we remain hopeful that things will pick up as September ends and October begins.

In the two weeks since our last update, a few birds have managed to find the Island, despite the strong wind and dense fog, but in far lower numbers than are expected from this time of year. For example, while we expect to see greater than 100 Yellow Warblers in a given Fall season, we have only recorded ten individual Yellow Warblers so far in the 2009 Fall Season! The same is true for most of our other typical Fall migrants: ‘Western’ Flycatchers, Willow Flycatchers, Warbling Vireos, Black-headed Grosbeaks, Orange-crowned Warblers, Townsend’s Warblers, Wilson’s Warblers and Common Yellowthroats are all way, way down from their usually abundant numbers. It’s still too early to be sure if later Fall arrivals, species like Hermit Thrush, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and Fox, Lincoln’s, White-crowned , Golden-crowned and Savannah Sparrows will make a decent showing, but we still await our first Hermit Thrush, Red-breasted Nuthatch and Lincoln’s Sparrow of the Fall.

As is usual for the Fall Season, a few rare vagrants have shown up this year. Some, such as Blackpoll Warbler, Tennessee Warbler and Clay-colored Sparrow show up every fall, generally in small numbers. This Fall has also been slow for these “usual vagrants”, but representatives of many of them have made an appearance. Every year we also expect a few rarer birds to show up. This year some of the highlights have included a Connecticut Warbler (the first on the Island since five appeared in 2006) on September 18th , a Brown Booby observed on seawatch on the 19th, a dark-lored White-crowned Sparrow, of either the mountain race oriantha or the eastern subspecies leucophrys was observed, and on September 27th, a minor day of arrivals, a Prairie Warbler (the first since 2005), a Bay-breasted Warbler, and a Painted Bunting, one of fewer than 15 records for the Island, were all discovered. The Painted Bunting was a very disheveled-looking individual, that when caught and banded, was aged as a second-year bird. Painted Buntings are one of the very few species of North American birds that can be aged as second-year in the fall.

However, even such exciting birds as the Connecticut Warbler and Brown Booby pale in comparison to the star of the Fall (so far!), a Brown Shrike, discovered by interns Matt Brady and Ryan Terrill on September 24th. It was eventually captured and banded. This species, a very rare stray to North America from Asia, has only occurred two times before in California, and fewer than a dozen times for North America as a whole – mostly from western Alaska, but also one record from Nova Scotia. The two prior records from California were both from the mid 1980s: the first record was of a juvenile bird, caught and banded right here on Southeast Farallon Island in late September, 1984, almost exactly 25 years ago; the second record was of a juvenile bird discovered by Oregonian birders visiting Pt Reyes in late October, 1986. That bird spent the winter at Olema Marsh, near the town of Pt Reyes Station, and was last seen in March, 1987. Unlike both of those older records, this year’s bird was determined to be an adult female. Although juvenile Brown Shrikes can be confused with juvenile Northern Shrikes, adults are unmistakable. This one, with a bright rufous tail and cap, and slightly darker back, was deemed to be of the nominate subspecies, which is what all other records from North America have been attributed to.

In addition to the birds, we have had some interesting insects as well. It seemed that even in the dense fog, a few Odonates and Butterflies were able to find the Island, and on most days a few were found and identified. Although both Painted and West Coast Ladies were seen most days, the big insect highlight of the fall occurred on September 22nd, when two Western Pygmy Blue butterflies were photographed. These were the first identified on SEFI since 1998! We have also had our first Monarch of the year, as well as good numbers of Familiar Bluets, and a few Variegated Meadowhawks and Black Saddlebags. Only one Green Darner has been seen, which is normally one of the more common Dragonflies for the Island

Continuing their strong showing from the Summer, Whales have maintained a constant presence around the Island. While Humpbacks have been the most abundant species, with up to 25 individuals on some days, a few Blues have been around, too. Our resident Gray, whom we have nicknamed Dorian, has been seen just about every day. Sometimes it will come so close to the Island that we can almost imagine reaching out and touching it!

On September 19th, Jordan Casey, our Seabird Season holdover, departed the Island. After she left the Island, she visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where she finally got to see a Great White Shark, then headed back to the East Coast. She’ll be spending the winter doing seabird work on another set of rocky islands: the Galapagos! Cassin’s Auklets are cool, but can they compare with Nazca Boobies? Jordan will have to keep us posted! We were joined by Mark Dettling and Kristie Nelson, two SEFI Fall Season veterans, on September 26th. With six birders on the Island, what astounding rarities will be found?? Stay tuned to find out!